By Daniel Anderson
For so long, it seemed like a distant dream. Yet, here we are.
Right from the start, the L.A-based band Tool stood as a complete anomaly. In a time where nearly every metal act being spun about on MTV was fusing the genre with an alternative radio-rock sound or even, heaven forbid, hip-hop elements, Tool practically tossed conformity out of the window.
Throughout the mid 90s to the 2000s, they gained notoriety for releasing songs with ambitious, complex structures, ever-shifting time signatures and numerous instrumental switch-ups and passages—all while still having a knack for keeping it all relatively accessible.
Combine that with their abstract and hypnotizing artwork and animated music videos (courtesy of guitarist Adam Jones and artist Alex Grey), and you have the most unlikely combination for success. Though brief in number, Tool’s practically untainted discography has been celebrated to a point that most bands, let alone progressive and alternative metal bands, can only dream of.
With millions of albums sold and accolades from MTV Music Video Awards and Grammy nods galore, it seemed as if time would forever be on this band’s side. Or so we all thought.
After the release of their last studio album, 10,000 Days, in 2006, Tool fell completely silent on new releases from then onward. Even despite the band remaining contractually together, they remained quiet on new material. As the years went by, a new album from them became something of a musical equivalent to a Half-Life sequel: something that would never happen.
That is, until recently.
Earlier this year, it was announced across all social media platforms that the silence would come to an end; their new album was in the works. The months after became a Tool frenzy. Further developments built up even more hype.
Streaming finally became available and album art and the release of the lead single followed suit. Soon enough the time had come—the silence was no more. Tool’s fifth studio effort, Fear Inoculum, had arrived.
With such immense shoes to fill, I had doubts that this group could truly live up to my expectations. To be perfectly honest, this is Tool’s least impressive album thus far. But given their usual standards, I would be remiss if I did not say that there are some fantastic things about it.
For starters, the most blatant elephant in the room is the tracklist: numerically, it is the shortest in their career, yet most of the tracks either border or surpass the ten minute mark. See, Tool are no strangers to long-winded songs, but they are usually reserved for pivotal spots in their tracklists (Third Eye and Wings for Marie being great past examples). With that in mind, it is easy to make the assumption that this was done so to make the album a grand statement.
Upon further inspection, however, this is not so much the case. The opening title track brings just about everything I expected out of a Tool record. From the soft-spoken intro with bongo drums, to the well-balanced production between every member’s instrumental work, to frontman Maynard James Keenan’s blissful yet firm vocals, nothing is out of place here. Best of all, the qualities of this track are blended together in such a way that it makes for a consistently engaging listen. It is a ten minute track that feels nearly half its length.
But in another breath, I do find it somewhat disappointing that Tool doesn’t go too far out of their comfort zone. Slightly worse than that is how the relatively safe songwriting comes at the cost of this track’s memorability, which is something that Tool is normally excellent at incorporating into their progressive metal forte.
Despite these hindrances, I suppose they do not drag down this record’s overall quality that much. In retrospect, two of their most celebrated works Lateralus and the aforementioned 10,000 Days do share a considerable amount of similarity in production and group dynamic, but both still maintain enough nuance to keep themselves unique—such as Lateralus’ tracklist structure being based on the Fibonacci Sequence.
Looking at their progression through that lens, I can tolerate the seemingly meat-and-potatoes approach that this album takes in comparison to its predecessors. Having said all that, I curiously find that nearly every pro and con that I observed on the opener applies to the majority of the tracklist.
Tracks like “Pneuma,” and “Invincible,” despite being decent and enjoyable tracks on their own, do not really lend themselves all that well to inclusion on the album. Even with their compositional difference, they are grounds that this band has tread several times over.
Also, it does not help that the brief, albeit over-abundant interludes on the digital version of this record waste potential room for more decency. Even when there are somewhat memorable moments occasionally (such as Danny Carey’s slick drum soloing on the absurdly-titled “Chocolate Chip Trip), I cannot help but feel that these interludes tainted so much of my enjoyment of the rest of what is offered.
Least of all, without these filler tracks, the album still runs at about 80 minutes in length; they make the experience even more bloated than it already is.
Still, even with the shortcomings, this is not to say that there is nothing of substance here—most of it is practically the opposite. The seventh track “Culling Voices,” serves as one of the more subdued and meditative moments on the album and still manages to stay interesting for its length. The fourth track “Descending,” despite seeming like another standard track, brings about some of Maynards best vocal performances on the record.
Then there is the final track (not including the interludes), “7empest.” This track is essentially the kind which everyone familiar with previous material wants to hear. It is the longest at fifteen minutes, and not a second is wasted. You name it: infectious riffs, Carrey’s fiery drumming, aggressive vocals, compositional finesse—this track has it all.
To sum up, Fear Inoculum manages to keep the discography of Tool nearly uncontested by their contemporaries. For the amount of flaws it has, that is not to speak of the tremendous qualities it has. Sure, gone are the days of more iconic tracks like “Forty Six & 2” and “Schism”, but at the very least, I can be grateful that it is still a solid release.
This record plays like a love-letter, and fans such as I are certainly receiving it as one.